Clive Davis - lawyer touched by stardust

Master behind Whitney, Manilow and Aretha talks with Chris Perkel about documentary of his life.

by Richard Mowe

Chris Perkel and Clive Davis (right) at the Hotel Royal in Deauville for the Festival of American Cinema: 'This was a dream chance to get to know Clive and to work with someone who had so much influence spanning such a long period of time'
Chris Perkel and Clive Davis (right) at the Hotel Royal in Deauville for the Festival of American Cinema: 'This was a dream chance to get to know Clive and to work with someone who had so much influence spanning such a long period of time' Photo: Richard Mowe
For someone who admits he knew nothing about music or the music business Clive Davis, now 85, has had a remarkable career and life, intertwined with the successes of such artists as Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Simon and Garfunkel, Rod Stewart and hundreds of others.

It was even more remarkable for a boy born into a middle-class Jewish family in New York to parents who expected him to be either a doctor - or a lawyer.

He revealed all in his autobiography The Soundtrack of My Life which now has been made in to a documentary by filmmaker Chris Perkel for Ridley Scott’s production company and titled Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, the rights to which have been bought by Apple.

Davis did become a lawyer and worked with the record company CBS in 1960 before he was recruited as the company’s assistant counsel. At the time, his knowledge of music was extremely limited by his own admission.

Perched together on a capacious settee in the Hotel Royall in Deauville as part of the American Film Festival Davis and Perkel drop names like stardust and reminisce about the origins of the project.

Davis recalls: “I had many offers to do a biopic from some of the major motion picture studios. I knew in my heart that what I really wanted was a documentary. The footage I had at my disposal was incredible. We had this grand party every year at which every star in the music world attended. This meant we had footage of major names going back more than 40 years. We’re talking the likes of Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, Rod Stewart, Lou Reed, Whitney Houston with Natalie Cole - all incredible performers.

Clive Davis: 'I lost both my parents as a teenager and the film points out how such a loss can affect your whole life. I felt the same pain on the death of Whitney.'
Clive Davis: 'I lost both my parents as a teenager and the film points out how such a loss can affect your whole life. I felt the same pain on the death of Whitney.' Photo: Courtesy of Deauville Festival of American Cinema
“I felt only a documentary would be the appropriate way to go and fortunately there was widespread interest in that concept. Ridley Scott’s company was one of those interested parties. The agents William Morris set up a series of interviews and Chris Perkel was proposed by Ridley Scott.

“I felt familiar with some of the director’s work and his love of music. All I had to do was make the anointment. As for the film, I left to them to decide who would be in it, who would be interviewed and I never attended any interview. I was shocked at some of the incredible archival footage where you saw me reading the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, which I had done 45 years ago. I knew I had done it but I had never seen it.”

Perkel jumped at the chance to “throw my hat into the ring.” He adds: “I had worked with Morgan Neville on 20 Feet From Stardom and was well versed in the music documentary world. This was a dream chance to get to know Clive and to work with someone who had so much influence spanning such a long period of time.”

Beside the panoply of stars, the film also has its more intimate moments such as Davis revealing matter of factly his bisexuality. He says: “It was not a typical story. I have a family. I was married twice and have four children and several grandchildren. After the failure of my second marriage, I did open myself up to either gender.

“I suppose it was definitely controversial. I was told that once you have sex with anyone of the same gender, you are either gay or you are lying. My observation is that there many people who at different times of their lives shift back and forth between genders without defining you have to be one or other. And that is what happened to me.”

After the packed screening at the Casino Theatre Davis reacted to the reception. "When I turned around to acknowledge the standing ovation and saw the faces with tear-stained emotions it was gratifying to me. The Whitney story captures her performances and also her downfall. Chris uses her as a bookend to my life - the incredible story that was Whitney’s life.”

Davis suggests that his talent for matching a singer to a song developed almost by accident. “It was a whole series breaks. I had to feel my way and realise that I was not going to know it all. I lost both my parents as a teenager and the film points out how such a loss can affect your whole life. I felt the same pain on the death of Whitney. I had to overcome some very difficult obstacles. Tenacity and a belief in yourself are hugely important.”

He takes pleasure and an unassuming pride in being associated with some of the great classics of popular music. “It has provided me with an amazing and fulfilling life,” he adds.

The film is set for release by Apple Music in October.

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